Look to the one before

February 19, 2016

Returning to what I said in my Star Wars: The Force Awakens posts, you may have a question: How do I square my analysis with the nearly universal acclaim the movie is receiving from professional critics?

I’m glad you asked, hypothetical question-asker. The answer is simple: Our reaction to a piece of art has less to do with its absolute quality than we like to admit. It has far more to do with our expectations going in.

I realized this while working on the year-end Best of posts at RandomC. While the good show that was expected to be good might still be crowned as Best Anime of the year, it was always the Most Underappreciated and Exceeded Expectations categories that yielded the gems. That’s because an amazing show turning out to be amazing is all according to plan, whereas one you didn’t even notice turning out to be amazing is a delightful surprise; it’s the same reason why shows named in the Biggest Disappointment category are often more reviled than the ones we all suspected would be crap from the start.

Let’s quote a movie psychopath real quick. The Joker from The Dark Knight says:

You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

Which strikes me as an awfully wise thing for a psychopath in clown makeup to say. When things go according to plan, nobody notices. Gang bangers are in a violent business, soldiers in war are in a violent business, shit happens. It’s when things don’t go according to plan—such as when civilians start dying, see: the overwrought fear of terrorism in general—that people get riled up, for good or ill.

Which is a long-winded way to say that it’s not hard to figure out why The Force Awakens is being heaped with so much praise right now. All you need to know is where expectations were. And it’s easy to do that with a sequel, because all you have to do is look to the one before.

The Force Awakens looks good because it was preceded by Revenge of the Sith, which was mediocre at best. And Revenge of the Sith is known as the “good” prequel because it was preceded by The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, which were utter dreck.

Why was Mad Max: Fury Road so well-regarded? Because no one expected a Mad Max movie to be anything but a visually pleasing sequence of car explosions. Why was Kingsman: The Secret Service such a surprise to so many? Because they didn’t know what to expect from it. Why is The Avengers ranking a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes? Because quite a few people suspected a superhero team mashup movie wasn’t going to work.

It works in the other direction as well. Avengers: Age of Ultron suffered from having to follow The Avengers. Back in the Star Wars universe, Return of the Jedi was nearly destined to underperform, since it it had to follow Empire Strikes Back, though it didn’t help itself with the ewoks.

It’s all about expectations.

Which is problematic. Not for me, or any other author, or any filmmaker or animator or musician, though the sting of disappoint is always there if you can’t follow up a great piece with something as good or greater. It’s mainly problematic for you, the viewer. It becomes a problem when it prevents you from enjoying a work of art you might have otherwise enjoyed, or causes you to gush over something despite serious flaws or troubling subtext.

I know, I know, I’m getting preachy again. It’s who I am. I’m a pretentious sonofabitch. But I do know that, once I accepted the role of expectation in how I react to stories, I gained the useful ability to set it aside on occasion.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy finding a gem where expected nothing. I just learned how to moderate my expectations going in, and when it comes time to recommend (or not) a work, I learned how to shut down the effects of expectation and [try to] evaluate it on its own merits. Otherwise I might end up praising a story to the heavens, only to realize that it wasn’t all that good. How embarrassing.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

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